Authors: Amy Sparling
The walk to the motel feels a lot longer than I’d anticipated when I left the Parks’ house an hour ago. I remember the drive over as being only a few minutes, so I figured I was about four or five miles away. And given what I remember about the gym class I had suffered through in junior high, normally walking one mile takes about fifteen minutes. So shouldn’t I be four miles away by now?
Maybe it’s because I’m doing more of a lazy saunter than a real walk, certainly not the powerwalking I’d done in that junior high class. With every passing minute, I hope Mom will listen to my voicemail message and come by to get me. She’ll want to stop me from spending money on a motel, especially money we don’t have in the form of a credit card.
A car approaches in front of me, driving way too fast to be Mom looking around for me, but I look up just in case. It’s a black sports car and it doesn’t slow down at all as it zooms across the old asphalt county road.
I sigh and kick at a piece of broken road, watching it bounce down a few feet. When I catch up to it, I kick it again and again until I end up at a red light in the middle of an intersection.
I’m getting close. The motel is to the left, next to a brightly lit shopping center. It looks maybe half a mile away and I pick up the pace, no longer caring about wasting money. I need a shower and a nap. Walking several miles in flip flops is incredibly uncomfortable.
The same cigar-smoking front desk guy greets me when I walk into the motel. Well, if you could call a bored grunt a greeting.
“Didn’t you check out?” he says, flipping a page in the celebrity gossip magazine in front of him.
I pull out the credit card from my back pocket. It has my name on it since I’m an authorized user on Mom’s account, so there’s no funny business here, not like the last time I’d stolen her debit card and tried to buy beer with it.
“I’d like another night please.”
“Sure thing,” he says, taking the card. I look around the dreary lobby, the stench of cigar smoke lingering heavy in the air. A little machine beeps and the guy grunts and swipes the card again. The second beep makes me nervous.
“Card’s declined,” he says, dropping the plastic in front of me. “Got another one?”
“Wha—” I begin, then I sigh. That card had a limit of twelve thousand dollars. There’s no way Mom’s spent it all in the last day. “Can you try it again? Maybe type in the numbers instead of swipe them?”
He lifts an eyebrow and I want to tell him to stop looking so damn judgmental because since he runs a place so shitty that most of his clientele are probably way worse off than I am. Financially and otherwise.
“Why the hell not,” he says, swiping the card again. It beeps. “I can try it all day kid, but it’s not going to work.”
“I don’t suppose you’ll let me work off the cost of a night’s stay?” I ask, widening my eyes in hopes that they make me look like a puppy in need.
He snorts. “And risk getting the place trashed? Sorry kid. No can do.”
“Thanks anyway,” I say. I turn around and push the door open and try really hard not to cry. There have been many times in my life where I’ve felt helpless, but I’ve always had Mom with me. Dawn may never win a Mother of the Year award, but I’d always trusted her to keep a roof over our head. Even when we’d spent two weeks camping in the national forest, we’d had a tent roof to sleep under.
I swallow the lump in my throat and force myself to face the truth, as much as I don’t want to. Dawn
leave me with a roof over my head. She thinks I’m safe at the Parks’ house so she’s not exactly responsible for me being stranded right now.
But I am not going back there. I just can’t. I won’t be a burden on a total stranger, no matter how nice they’ve been to me. No one actually
taking in stranded people as unexpected houseguests and I am not going to put that on someone as nice as Becca. I refuse to be an obligation.
I stand outside in the dark, watching bugs fly around the streetlamp above me. Next year I’ll be eighteen and a real adult. I’ll have to figure out how to take care of myself at some point since Dawn has made it more than clear that she expects me to be on my own by my birthday.
I draw in a deep breath and think. What the hell should I do? I have about a hundred dollars cash on me but even these sleazy motel places won’t take cash without a huge deposit.
I wonder if there’s a twenty-four-hour store nearby so I could hang out in the air conditioning and come up with a plan. Or maybe there’s a bridge.
Am I really homeless right now?
All I want is a hot shower, some food, and a bed.
I start walking toward the right since I came from the left and know there’s nothing on that side of town. Soon, the golden arches of a McDonald’s catch my eye and an even more welcome sign underneath it makes me smile. It’s open twenty-four hours. Finally, some good luck.
I head inside and order from the dollar menu, then settle into a booth at the back of the restaurant. It’s secluded enough that the employees might not notice if I stay for a while, and the cushiony bench seat has been recently renovated and is pretty comfortable.
Plus, from this table I have a view out of the window. When Mom’s car pulls into the motel parking lot, I’ll be able to see it. She must be on her way back home by now. I’m sure it won’t be a much longer wait.
Loud laughter from a group of rowdy football players wakes me up. That’s when I realize I’ve fallen asleep in the booth, but luckily no one sees me. I lean out into the aisle and check the clock on the wall. It’s past midnight. Holy shit. I’ve been here for four hours.
Mom’s car isn’t in the parking of the motel, and I sit up straighter in my booth, rubbing the lines from my cheek from where they’d pressed against the seam in the fabric. Am I totally screwed? Am I now living in a McDonald’s? This can’t possibly be my life.
On shaky legs, I walk back up to the counter and order a milkshake. It’s a waste of what little money I have, but I’m feeling a tidal wave of depression coming on and the sugar will help.
The guy takes my order and says the machine will take a few minutes to power up. “What’s your name?” he says, holding a pen over a receipt paper.
“Keanna,” I say.
He writes it down, spelling it
and then smiles. “I’ll call you when it’s ready.”
I head back to my seat, ignoring the football players. They’re still in uniform and their entire section of the restaurant smells like sweat and fries.
The door jangles open and one of the football players whoops. “Jett, man, what’s going on?”
My blood turns cold. Jett’s here? What if Becca’s already told him that I slipped out of her house without telling her bye? What if they all think I’m a huge jerk?
I guess it wouldn’t matter. Maybe I am a huge jerk. But I slide further into my booth and hope that he doesn’t stay long.
I jump. The cashier calls out my name again, louder this time.
Dammit, dammit, dammit.
Now I have to embarrass myself all for the sake of a stupid milkshake. Before the guy can call out my name for a third time, I grudgingly walk up to the register, keeping my eyes only on the guy holding my milkshake.
“Here ya go,” he says, handing it over. “Nice and fresh for you.”
If this were any other time, I would ask how the hell a milkshake can be fresh, but it is definitely not the time. Also, luck isn’t on my side.
“Hey,” Jett says, his voice full of surprise. He’s waiting on his food to be ready, the straw from his soda dangling an inch from his mouth. “It
you. Small world.”
“Small town,” I say, turning to leave.
“Wait.” Jett grabs his bag of food from the guy behind the counter and then takes a handful of ketchup packets. “Who are you eating with?”
He glances toward the football guys and it’s as if he actually considered that I might have come here with them. “But there’s only one car in the parking lot.”
“What does that have to do with me?” I say. Damn, he brings out the bitch in me.
“Did you walk here from Park’s?”
I nod. This time I do walk away. I’m done with his questions and it’s already humiliating enough being seen here, alone, and homeless. Although I guess he doesn’t know I’m officially homeless right now.
I make it back to my booth and then Jett slides in on the opposite side, dropping the ketchup packets in between us on the table.
“Uh, hello?” I say, scowling. “Can’t you find somewhere else to sit?”
“I’ll level with you,” he says, leaning forward as he removes his food from the paper bag. “You look like you’ve had a shit day. I’ve definitely had a shit day. Probably the worst day I’ve had all year. You’re a friendly face, and, okay maybe not
but you’re sure as hell easy to look at and I’d like to eat dinner here.”
My cheeks become raging hot and I stare at the straw in my milkshake.
Jett continues, “So if you really want to kick me out you can, but I’d like to be in your company if only for a little while.”
Something I don’t quite understand floods into my brain, taking over all rational thoughts. I have been nothing but rude to this boy and yet he is consistently nice to me. I lift my shoulders and take a long sip of my milkshake.
“Fine, but only if you share your fries.”
Keanna may be the cutest fry eater in the world. Her lips slide to the side of her mouth while she gazes at the fries, carefully choosing one. Then she grabs it and bites the end off. It takes her two or three bites for each fry, when I’m the kind of guy who shoves a handful of them in my mouth at a time.
I’d ordered two large containers of fries to go with my double cheeseburger and after she asked me to share them, I’d happily obliged and dumped both containers onto a plastic tray.
Normally I’d devour them all in a few minutes, but I make myself take my time for this midnight meal. When it’s finished, I’ll have to leave and I am not ready to say goodbye to her again. The very thought that some girl is stuck in my head like this drives me crazy, but right now I’m just going with it.
“So where’s your mom?” I ask after I’ve watched her cutely eat a couple fries.
Her shoulders lift. “I don’t know.”
“Can you call her?”
She shakes her head. “I tried that. No answer.”
“I’m sure she’s okay,” I say. Keanna nods. She’s not very chatty but I want to keep talking. “So . . . did you walk here?”
She stares at the fry she just selected, then turns it over in her hand. Her eyes meet mine and they narrow into thin slits. “What’s it matter to you?”
It’s probably the last thing I should do, but I’m exhausted from the party at the lake and this girl is doing something to me that I just don’t understand. So when I burst out laughing, it’s not a surprise that Keanna’s glare intensifies.
“The hell are you laughing about?” she says, throwing a fry at me.
I catch it against my T-shirt and then eat it. “You. I’m laughing at you.”
Her lips press into a thin line. “Why?”
I shrug. “You’re so mean to me and I don’t know why.” I shake my head and try to stop smiling, but it doesn’t really work. “It’s actually kind of a turn on.”
This time she doesn’t throw a fry at me. She throws her fist, punching me right in the arm.
“Ow!” I say, leaning back into the bench seat and rubbing my arm.
Her eyes widen. “Oh my god, I’m sorry. Did that actually hurt?”
I shake my head and grin. “No, but it’s nice to see you showing some kind of emotion other than animosity toward me.”
She rolls her eyes and grabs another one of my fries, this time taking a packet of ketchup to go with it.
“Sorry.” She places a careful line of ketchup along the length of the fry and then takes a bite out of it. “You don’t deserve my wrath. But unfortunately . . .” She takes another bite and it’s still adorable. “Everyone gets my wrath lately. That’s just the way the world is right now. So I can’t stop it so you might as well accept it.”
I see her gazing at a fry with crunchy ends so I reach out and grab it before she can. “Why do you have so much wrath to give?”
“I’m homeless for starters.”
She flinches right after she says it, and I seize the opportunity to get her to open up. “What else?”
Silence ticks on for a few seconds and I give up on trying to get her to open up to me. Then she lets out a soft breath and gazes out of the window. “Everything just sucks in my life right now. I feel like I’m having some kind of mid-life crisis but I’m only seventeen so what does that say for the rest of my life? Is it all downhill from here?”
“The hill can always change directions,” I say, trying to sound philosophical or something, but I’m sure it comes out like I’m some illiterate freak. “You have to stay positive.”
“Easy for some rich white guy to say,” she mumbles.
I want to object but, she’s kind of right and that makes me feel even more like a dick than I did earlier tonight. Now I’ve realized that I’m in danger of becoming a heartless prick like the one who left girls like Maria crying at parties, and on top of it all, I’m just some
rich white guy
to this girl.
“I’m not really rich,” I say. “I make like ten bucks an hour at my dad’s track. My parents are kind of rich, yeah, but not me. I have like zero assets. Besides, aren’t you white?”
“I’m Puerto Rican.” She looks up at the ceiling. “Well . . . half. That’s all Dawn will tell me about my dad.”
I smile. “My life isn’t perfect, you know.”
“You say that, but are you going home to a bed that’s yours tonight?”
Keanna lists things off on her fingers. “Are you positive you’ll have that same room a week from now, or a year? Is there food in your fridge at all times? Do you have a phone and a car and a job? Will you inherit the family business after your parents die? Because your answers are all yes and that makes your life so much better than mine will ever be, Jett Adams.”
“Wow.” I stare at the dwindling pile of fries, no longer hungry after that lecture from this girl I barely know. And then it hits me. And I probably should have realized it the moment I saw her with the crease across her face like she’d been sleeping on something.
“Do you have a place to go tonight?” I ask, trying to sound casual and not judgey.
She hesitates and that’s all the answer I need. “I’ll drive you back to Park’s and you can stay there.”
She shakes her head. “No. I can’t go back. I already wrote a note saying I won’t bother them anymore.”
I lift an eyebrow. “Your mom still isn’t back, right? You need a place to stay. They won’t care, they’re nice people.”
“I’ll figure it out,” she says, but she’s tracing the patterns on the table with her finger and the way she looks right now, all frail and small and helpless, makes me think of a little kid. I want to protect her. I
to protect her.
“You’ll come home with me,” I say, and it’s not a question. It’s a fact. “My parents are asleep and I’ll just sneak you in. No one needs to know if you don’t want them to.”
She frowns and I can tell she wants to refuse the offer, probably even punch me again. I put on my charming smile and try really hard to look like the kind of guy she can trust. “I have a huge bedroom. I’ll sleep on the futon and you won’t even notice I’m there. And my bathroom connects to my room so you can stay hidden if you want.”
“You have your own bathroom?” she asks, her shoulders leaning forward.
I nod eagerly, hoping she’ll agree to come home with me. And this is the first time in my life that I’ve thought this without any kind of sexual ideas in mind.
Of course . . . if she wanted to . . .
I shake my head to clear it of unwanted thoughts. I’m genuinely trying to be Keanna’s friend here. I can’t go all horn dog on her now. Even if I don’t say my desires out loud, I’m sure she’d pick up on it.
I hold out my hand to her, palm up on the table. “What do you say?”
She stares at my hand and then at me, her eyes far away in thought. Finally, she slaps my hand in a horizontal high-five. “Yeah, okay. I could do that. Do I get to shower?”
Ohmygod Jett, do not think of her in the shower.
“And you won’t tell anyone?”
I mime zipping my lips shut. “Not a soul.”
Just when I think she’s about to say yes, her shoulders fall and she shakes her head. “I can’t. I can’t keep mooching off of strangers.”
“Hey,” I say, leaning over the booth to grab her had. She flinches, but I hold on. “You’re not mooching and I’m not a stranger. I’m your friend. And yes I’m your friend who thinks you’re smoking hot, but I can also behave myself.”
Her cheeks go bright red at my compliment and I have to resist sending a dozen more her way. I’m used to the way girls act when I flirt with them, but this time it feels different. This time I’m not just spewing line after line of dumb shit to make a girl swoon. This time I mean what I say.
Damn, I might be in trouble.
But then Keanna brightens and says, “Okay fine. Let’s go.”
And suddenly my shitty night just got a whole lot better.